Man United must free Paul Pogba; France role won't work in Premier League
Back in 1998, the last time France won the World Cup, Chelsea defender Frank Leboeuf returned to England and appeared on "They Think It's All Over," a sport-based comedy television show.
In other countries, or other programmes, Leboeuf might have been greeted with reverence. Instead he was the target of mockery throughout and responded to every joke with a simple line: "I don't care. I won the World Cup." Which, in fairness, serves as a decent response to any jibe. Once you win the World Cup, who cares what anyone says about you?
Manchester United midfielder Paul Pogba has been subjected to similar levels of mockery since his return to the club, among a familiar stream of questions: What's his best position? Is he worth the money? Does he have the necessary tactical discipline? Now Pogba -- and his supporters -- can simply respond in the Leboeuf manner if those questions continue: Who cares? He won the World Cup.
Whether Pogba succeeds or flops in 2018-19, the Frenchman can point to his World Cup medal, and his crucial left-footed curled strike for his team's third goal, as evidence of his achievements. Throughout the tournament Pogba was steady, consistent and disciplined, occupying a deeper role than usual to provide a solid platform for others.
Inevitably it has prompted speculation that, upon his return to United, manager Jose Mourinho should deploy him similarly: in a two-man central midfield partnership. "I hope he understands why he was very good," Mourinho responded when asked about his midfielder's performances in Russia.
However, it's important to remember the context of Pogba's displays.
For a start, while France's system was nominally 4-2-3-1, with Pogba alongside N'Golo Kante, realistically it was still a midfield trio. While right-sided Kylian Mbappe pushed forward to become an extra attacker, on the left side Blaise Matuidi provided the balance by tucking in and becoming more of a central midfielder than a wide player, especially in the 1-0 semifinal victory over Belgium.
Pogba played to the right, rather than his familiar left-sided position at club level, but he was nevertheless performing as one of three central midfielders, with Matuidi dropping in when Pogba pushed forward.
Another factor is that international football is played at a much slower tempo than club football, with the difference in pressing a particular factor. Very few teams at the World Cup pressed opponents energetically in advanced positions in the manner of, for example, Mauricio Pochettino's Tottenham or Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool.
Most retreated quickly into their own half, which meant central midfielders were rarely under pressure: they could receive passes from defence, check over their shoulder to ensure they were being afforded space, then turn and play forward passes.
In the Premier League next season, particularly in big games, being resistant to the opposition press will be more important as teams will set pressing traps and attempt to disrupt Pogba's play. He possesses both the technique and physicality to cope, but it requires a very different approach. Arguably, the only period France were pressed heavily was throughout the first half of the final, with Croatia pushing up and playing proactively. Pogba certainly coped better than many of his teammates, but didn't put his side in control as France were outplayed.
The third point to consider is that the World Cup is a very short, seven-game sample size. Didier Deschamps had other superstars at his disposal: Antoine Griezmann's excellent Euro 2016 campaign meant he'd become France's technical leader, the side based around him rather than Pogba. Mbappe's rise, meanwhile, meant France boasted two outstanding attackers and required a more structured, disciplined midfield trio rather than Pogba playing an all-action role.
Pogba essentially played within himself, providing balance for the benefit of the team, for which he deserves tremendous praise. It's doubtful, though, that he wants to restrict his zone of influence throughout an entire season. Few players in world football boast his all-round talent, and it's natural for any footballer to want to showcase his potential and try to influence games in the final third.
Besides, Manchester United don't have attacking talents like Griezmann and Mbappe to depend upon. Alexis Sanchez is an outstanding footballer but his United career thus far has been underwhelming; Romelu Lukaku is now a proven top-level centre-forward, but not the type of player Mourinho needs to build the team around, and his favoured position doesn't affect Pogba's role anyway. Pogba is United's main man, and if Mourinho wants him to dominate games, a more dynamic, attack-minded role still appears logical.
The signing of Shakhtar Donetsk's Fred, for around £52 million, combined with the impressive debut campaign of Nemanja Matic would suggest Mourinho still intends to play Pogba as United's "third" midfielder, with Matic holding and Fred playing a more dynamic role.
It's comparable to Mourinho's first Chelsea side: Matic the Claude Makelele; Fred the Michael Essien; leaving Pogba as the Frank Lampard, timing runs to the edge of the box and firing home. That was his crowning contribution to the World Cup final, but he's more likely to repeat that goal from a more advanced role.
Regardless of his position, Pogba might struggle to carry his international form into the new campaign. There's less than a month between the World Cup final (July 15) and the Premier League campaign (Aug. 10), and while he'll be afforded extra recovery time to prepare, it's a difficult turnaround both physically and psychologically.
Pogba will realise this is the highlight of his career, a moment when his popularity will never be higher. It would be understandable if matches against Leicester and Brighton don't, at the moment, seem particularly appealing.
In decades gone by, clubs regularly signed footballers on the basis of good World Cup performances. Gradually, they've realised that World Cups are a poor litmus test, and modern scouting methods are somewhat more sophisticated. A couple of standout performances at a tournament, where the football is played in an entirely different manner, are not enough to justify a multimillion-pound outlay.
Therefore the same consideration must apply to the tactical deployment of individuals. Pogba was excellent for France in a particular role, but with Manchester United there are different challenges, different teammates and different personal preferences.
Pogba's summer hasn't changed his optimum position for Manchester United, but it has changed his status: He won the World Cup.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.